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Pasty, the Subterranean Sandwich

This Cornish miner's lunch was the ancestor of the hoagie

April 11, 1996|LINDA BURUM

Hard-rock mining, with its dangerous dynamite blasts and long working hours in cramped spaces lighted with only a candle affixed to the miner's hat, took a certain strength and tenacity. It's said that besides these traits, Cornish miners had an uncanny knack for finding the veins with the richest ore, even more accurately than mining engineers and geologists.

To keep their pasties in edible condition, the miners carried specially designed pasty lunch boxes, often with a secret compartment for liquor or a place for a live coal to keep the pasty warm. These antique boxes are collector's items. "You can't even get them in England," Burrows says.

Based on his cookbooks and the books about Cornish miners, Burrows has been able to make a sort of historical chronology of the pasty. In Vida Heard's "Cornish Cookery: Recipes of Today and Yesteryear," he found a description of the ancient "bag pudding" made from barley meal, raisins and pork blood that was the predecessor of today's pasty.

Burrows likes to think that the pudding was served by King Arthur at Camelot because he read about it in John Steinbeck's translation of Mallory's "King Arthur and His Noble Knights." Of course, Mallory was not an authority on food history.

Much later, in the early 19th century, the common miner's pasty--also called a hogan or auggie in some parts of Cornwall--was a chunk of unleavened barley dough into which vegetables and an occasional bit of pork were inserted. The Cornish miners couldn't afford wheat flour, but no matter: The barley dough pasties were famously tough. It was said they could withstand a fall down a mine shaft, and pasties have borne that reputation ever since.

The old-time pasty or auggie was "a triumph of Cornish make-do," Heard writes. The overstuffed American sandwich called a hoagie probably gets its name from the auggie.

Around the 1840s, the auggie evolved into the more refined stuffed wheat-crusted pasty and became part of everyday Cornish eating. Children who took pasties to school made sure to be friendly with the pasty monitor, who decided where each pasty would be placed by the fire that would warm them for lunch. They might find rabbit meat in their pasties, because rabbit was easier to acquire than beef.

Burrows has been perfecting his pasty pastry recipe for years, constantly analyzing recipes from cookbooks and trying something new. When The Times Food Section ran an issue devoted to the attributes of lard and Burrows learned it was lower in cholesterol than butter, he was elated. Lard makes the best pasty crust, he believes. He now renders his own lard from fresh pork fat.

"Lard rendering is so easy," he says enthusiastically. "You simply bake the fat in a 200-degree oven on a rimmed cookie sheet then pour off the liquid." He also likes the flavor that real beef suet gives to his meat-filled pasties.

HiHs latest triumph, airy pasties, are baked without a filling. "What I like best about these," Burrows says, "is you can bake them, freeze them, then fill them with whatever you want right before you eat." Burrows gives a California-style vegetarian filling recipe for airy pasties.

Granny's Pasties, a shop in Cornwall, typifies this trend of using novel pasty fillings. Granny's offers chicken curry and "figgy" (raisin-nut) fillings along with the more traditional beef or chicken. In Cornwall and in London, Burrows says, supermarkets now sell pasties with a wide variety of fillings.

Perhaps that's how another of Burrows' favorite Cornish sayings arose: "The devil never ventures into Cornwall for fear a baker would put him into a pasty."


Personalized Pasties

It can be hard to tell one pasty from another. That's why Cornish miners put their initials on the pasties they took to work with them. Patrick Burrows marks his pasties as well. The practice is not only historically accurate, it's also useful. Sometimes Burrows marks the initials of the recipient of the pasty; other times, he indicates the type of filling the pasty contains. Burrows uses a pointed soldering iron to personalize his pasties, but initials can also be carved with the tines of a fork.

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